Why do we fear what we fear? What role do such fears play in the day-to-day choices we make in our social, political and personal lives? What consequences does ecophobia have for the way we treat the environments we live in?—Tom J. Hillard
DARK NATURE—Vampires. Zombies. Ghosts. Haunted gardens. Threatening woods. Horrific, thirsty bogs. Enraged typhoons. Restless, brooding moors. Gothic forms of nature are indeed numerous and disturbing.
Gothic nature is usually not of a sunny or affectionate disposition. In fact, it is often a nature which inspires fear, horror, sometimes even loathing. Anyone who has experienced terror at an advancing storm, deep aversion to a bat or spider, extreme disgust as an animal relieves itself, or abject fear as a flashlight gives out—has had what might be called an “ecogothic moment.” Fear-filled experiences of nature (ecophobias) are commonplace, and very much a part of being human—just as much as biophilia is, a deep love and admiration for nature. It appears that while nature can inspire awe, heal and give us a sense of grounding in the world, it can also terrify and alienate us.
The Gothic genre recognizes this. As an avid reader (and writer) of gothic fiction myself, the genre unabashedly features ecophobic nature. Gothic nature, in a phrase, is Charles Dickens’s “fog everywhere.”* It seems more of an entity or a manifestation. A presence. Dangerous, brooding, volatile, and at times fickle—to paraphrase gothic novelist Angela Carter, Gothic nature decidedly and deliberately provokes “unease.”
This antagonism, in which humans sometimes view nature as opponent, can be expressed toward natural physical geographies (mountains, windswept plains), animals (snakes, spiders, bears), extreme meteorological events (Shakespearean tempests, hurricanes in New Orleans, typhoons), bodily processes and products (microbes, bodily odors, menstruation, defecation), and biotic land-, air-, and seascapes….The ecophobic condition exists on a spectrum and can embody fear, contempt, indifference, or lack of mindfulness (or some combination of these) toward the natural environment. —Simon Estok
Is there a place for thinking about our fear of nature? Shouldn’t we be focusing on the positive stuff? Absolutely—but facing the more fearful aspects of our relationships with nature, author Simon Estok suggests, is just as important.* Ignoring or repressing our experiences of nature-fear leaves ourselves open to manipulation—manipulation of what are natural proclivities and responses within the human. Unless we come to grips with our aversions to (as well as our attractions for) nature, our “repressed” fears are likely to be directed in certain ways. Our fears, for example, can be taken advantage of by certain economic agendas, especially those which promote nature as an opponent or something to be controlled. These uses of fear, Estok argues, are driving us into deeper ecological destruction and devastation. In coming to understand the role of terror and aversion in our attitudes toward the natural world (and how these pattern destructive interactions), can we make different choices for the future?
There have been times when I have walked toward the water, out into the blackness….it is so dark that I cannot tell where the water begins and the land ends. And my heart is always thumping wildly. It feels as if I am being swallowed alive by something enormous and terrifying. I know that if I give in to my fear, I can turn back and run away to safety, and yet I go on, refusing my fear. Then, when I am there at the edge, with the water almost at my feet and the vastness of the sky making me feel smaller and yet smaller, and the Bay unseen and waiting in front of me—I know to stop. I come to rest just past the moment where my fear might prevent me from taking another step. And then I feel truly in the company of the stones who have only true fear….—Hilary Scharper, Perdita
The EcoGothic (or environmental gothic) is a literary genre and a form of literary criticism which deliberately engages with some of these issues. Scholars Andrew Smith and William Hughes* have argued for the importance of a more ecologically-aware Gothic, suggesting that the Gothic (through a reading of both old and new texts) is uniquely positioned to speak to our anxieties about climate change and the planet’s future.
© Hilary Scharper
“I’ve often been asked to define the Ecogothic, but I always seem to end up telling a story about a moody, rather unruly black velvet dress I once acquired. I originally thought the dress was for me…and I was partially right. I hadn’t the faintest idea when I would wear it, but it seemed to capture a restless sense of myself. Then when I started to write my first novel, I realized forests and oceans, skies and bogs and wetlands…Nature is drawn to wearing black velvet, too.”
“In sum, animals are people, or see themselves as persons. Such a notion is virtually always associated with the idea that the manifest form of each species is a mere envelope (a ‘clothing’) which conceals an internal human form, usually only visible to the eyes of the particular species or to certain trans-specific beings such as shamans. This internal form is the ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ of the animal: an intentionality or subjectivity formally identical to human consciousness…This notion of ‘clothing’ is one of the privileged expressions of metamorphosis….”
—Eduardo Vivieros de Castro, 1998.
Tom J. Hillard. “Deep into That Darkness Peering”: An Essay on Gothic Nature. Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, 16.4, Autumn 2009:694.
Charles Dickens, Bleak House, 1853.
Simon C. Estok. “Introduction.” The Ecophobia Hypothesis, Routledge, 2018:1.
Andrew Smith and William Hughes. “Introduction: Defining the ecoGothic.” In Ecogothic. Andrew Smith and William Hughes, eds. Manchester University Press, 2013.
Eduardo Vivieros de Castro, “Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 4 (3), 1998.